I recently read a couple of anthologies that groups of authors have been putting together to showcase their talents. Between the two collections there were probably about two dozen stories, most by authors I’d never heard of before. And from that batch I found only two stories that intrigued me enough to make me look up more of that author’s work.
That led me to reflect on why so few of those stories really worked for me. In most cases, I knew within the first few pages that the story wasn’t grabbing me, but except for a couple that were so badly written I couldn’t bear to continue, I did read most of them all the way through. And in every case, my initial impression of the story was confirmed.
So what was the apparently rare factor that made me want to continue reading a couple of authors’ works that most of the other stories lacked?
My initial thought was that it was the characters, because those generally make or break a piece for me, but after looking at them a little more closely, I decided it was something more than that. Certainly characters are part of the answer because one of the major differences was that I liked or sympathized with the protagonists in the stories I liked. But I sometimes felt some of the same for characters in stories I didn’t care for.
It was more than just that sympathy factor, though. The characters of the stories I liked were interesting. They had depth and dimension, not just quirks, which some of the authors seemed to use instead of showing a real character. The characters that worked for me felt things, thought about things, and acted from those thoughts and feelings, but they weren’t just simple things like generalized anger or fear. Their emotions and reason had complexity and depth.
It wasn’t just the characters, though. The settings, action, description, all had that little bit more depth that made the writing vivid and sucked me into the author’s world. I realized that many of the stories that didn’t work for me felt thin, as though the author hadn’t dived deep enough into the story, didn’t know her world and characters well enough to be able to make them come alive.
I finally decided it was a combination of doing many things well, but the two that seemed most prominent were showing everything rather than telling, which put me right into the story, and picking the right detail to make me see exactly what was going on. Both of those are things that writing instructors, books on writing, and blog posts on writing all harp on. Yet, as these stories showed me, it’s not as easy to do as it sounds.
As an author myself, it felt important for me to figure this out because I hope I’m writing the kind of story that will draw readers in deeply and refuse to let them go. I’ve tried to do that in The Detective’s Dilemma, my Daphne-award nominated romantic suspense story from Kensington/Lyrical Press.
It was especially important to me to get the reader deeply into my heroine in that story because in the very first chapter she is forced to do something horribly, mind-blowingly awful. I want readers to feel her shock, her horror, her helplessness, and her fear. I want the reader to experience that scene right along with her and then stay with her and cheer for her as she tries to rebuild a shattered life, find the villains, and beat them at their game.
The Detective’s Dilemma
Although Sarah Anne Martin admits to pulling the trigger, she swears someone forced her to kill her lover. Homicide detective Jay Christianson is skeptical, but enough ambiguous evidence exists to make her story plausible. If he gives her enough freedom, she’ll either incriminate herself or draw out the real killers. But, having been burned before, Jay doesn’t trust his own protective instincts…and his growing attraction to Sarah only complicates matters.
With desire burning between them, their relationship could ultimately be doomed since Sarah will be arrested for murder if they can’t find the real killer.
Karen McCullough’s wide-ranging imagination makes her incapable of sticking to one genre for her storytelling. As a result, she’s the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which span the mystery, fantasy, paranormal, and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business to support her writing habit. Awards she’s won include an Eppie Award for fantasy; three other Eppie finals; Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.